Q&A: Liza Paul and Bahia Watson, Pomme Is French For Apple

I grew up in Brampton, that far-off big-little city of Jamaicans, Punjabis and Newfoundlanders. If you rolled with the cultural collision, it was the best place to grow up. (If you couldn’t, you moved?) Brampton is a happy-weird demographic accident of the GTA. Where rainbow packs of friends are common and ethnicity figures prominently in your day-to-day interactions but isn’t necessarily a problem so much as a curiosity to be explored.

After five years in Toronto, nothing’s brought me closer to that feeling than Pomme Is French For Apple. In August I spent an hour cackling with laughter – like you only do with your closest – when I caught the show at Best of Fringe. Its mandate is delivered plain-spoken within the first few minutes by stars/creators Liza Paul and Bahia Watson: “Pomme is French for Apple – and yardie for pussy.”

THESE ARE MY PEOPLE. I love this story – about sex and women and fools you can only suck your teeth at – the way it’s told, the feelings it inspires and the girls who tell it. I have not laughed harder this year; nor have I been more impressed at what is going on in this city and who, despite what Toronto Life or the Worthy 30 tells me, is relevant.

Pomme’s been in production for two years and is so good I’m going to watch it again, this Sunday, September 23 at the Drake Hotel where it runs as part of the Just For Laughs Festival. Tickets ($15) will be available at the door. But first, I just had to talk to Bahia and Liza about brown girls, jokes and theatre in Toronto.

How did you guys meet?
Liza: We were both doing an artistic residency at d’bi.young anitafrika’s theatre. We were all working on solo pieces in the program and most people’s pieces had a tinge of sadness – but mine wasn’t and Bahia’s wasn’t either, we had jokes in ours. So after the program ended, in September of 2009, we decided to keep writing together.

Bahia: I was working on a one-woman show called In Search of Shaniqua Jenkins and Liza was working on her show called Everybody Wan Catch A Screw and it was just this vibes thing. We didn’t know what we were working on or toward but thought we’d write and set some deadlines.

Were you both already involved in performance and theatre?

L: When I started I was the associate producer at Soulpepper and d’bi approached me before she opened her theatre to do some PR. My whole job was making contracts and writing emails but I was in such a creative environment so I was like “I think I want to tell stories too, but I don’t know what that looks like.” I wasn’t able to articulate what I wanted beyond that. So I told d’bi, and that was a terrifying email to send because, living in the administrative world there’s artists and administrators and the two shall never meet. Until then I had no experience with writing or performing – nor was I sure that’s what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted to write something and maybe it would be funny.

B: I didn’t go to theatre school but that didn’t reflect how much I knew or cared. The way d’bi works is so interesting because it’s a great, safe space for getting to know yourself as an artist. It’s very liberating.

That sounds like something that is unique to the “theatre world.” Does that exist in Toronto?

L: If it does I don’t know about it.

B: It was a very unique space in the people it brought together and the feeling. Continue reading

Downtown vs. Suburbs: Yes, It’s An Ethnic Thing

By Denise Balkissoon

When people talk about the Great Downtown/Suburb Divide, they are also talking about ethnicity.

Don’t agree? Educate yourself on the GTA’s demographics with this extremely handy page from the blog Pundit’s Guide, which cross references long-census data with federal political ridings.

Scarborough Rouge-River (where I grew up) has the highest non-white population in all of Canada. The GTA riding with the highest population of Chinese people is Scarborough-Agincourt. South Asians are most numerous in Brampton-Gore-Malton. Those who checked “Black” and “Latin American” on the census are most populous in York South-Weston, in central Etobicoke*, while Southeast Asians are abundant in York West, a bit north. The largest congregation of Filipinos is in Scarborough Centre, while Arabs prefer Mississauga-Erindale, and West Asians and Koreans represent Willowdale.

The only “visible minority” (ugh, hate that term) group counted by the Canadian census which has more members in downtown Toronto than in the ‘burbs are the Japanese. Toronto Centre is their most populous GTA riding—it’s 19 on the list, after 18 areas in British Columbia and Alberta.

The Suburbs vs. Downtown conversation is also about income, since it’s long been known that the outer 416 has a higher concentration of poverty than downtown. In this city at this time, class always has an ethnic angle.

After last fall’s municipal election, when downtowners stung by Rob Ford’s ascendance were circling their wagons, they seemed to take comfort by trashing the stereotypical suburbanite: a gas-guzzling art-hater laughing it up in a big backyard. Ford notwithstanding, that’s not necessarily who an outer 416 suburbanite is. But it’s definitely confusing that the people with the most to lose from service-cutting governments like that led by Rob Ford—poor people of colour—seem to have voted for him.

“The Fords misled people to thinking there was gravy,” says Avvy Go, a member of Colour of Poverty, a four-year-old campaign to educated Ontarians about the racialization of poverty in the province. Last fall, Colour of Poverty gave each mayoral candidate a grade on their “race report card,” noting the candidates’ history and their stances on transit, housing and employment equity. Rob Ford got an F.

“Yes, people in the suburbs voted for a government that would cut services that they need,” says Go, who recommends that we all read The Trouble With Billionaires. “Some politicians are very skilled in dumbing down, picking an overly simplistic portrayal of the problem.” When $60 equals a week of groceries for your family, cutting the vehicle registration tax seems like a good idea. Ford is to blame, and voters are to blame, but also to blame are the mayor’s losing opponents, who obviously did not do a very good job explaining their own platforms, or picking his apart. And really, there are downtowners that drive and suburbanites that always loathed Ford. More than anything, the Harris Tories divide-and-conquer amalgamation plan is still succeeding, over a decade later.

The role of ethnicity, income and the 416/905 divide is a hot topic among politicos. Suburban Dream-type suburbanites are living in the 905, and they, too, are largely non-white (white people who want a slice of backyard are apparently skipping over the 905 in favour of exurban paradises). The erosion of ironclad Liberal support among immigrant groups is making it easier for both the Conservatives and the Ontario PCs to live without winning votes in Toronto, and to win those 905 votes, they’re playing the race card without shame. Brampton has the highest income of all of the GTA cities, and politicians are falling over themselves kissing brown ass out there.

This week, we’re talking race, ethnicity, 416 and 905 on the Ethnic Aisle. I don’t know exactly what it means, but I know that it matters.

*Thanks to Rob Salerno and Dave Scrivener for the fact check here. York isn’t Etobicoke. I don’t consider it downtown…I guess we should discuss the role of “midtown” in all of this.

Q&A: Vijay Iyer on jazz, privileged prodigies, and “Indian-American”

Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer is a Yale mathematics graduate who also holds a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in Technology and the Arts. This might seem slightly incongruous until you read the title of his 1998 dissertation, according to Wikipedia: Macrostructures of Sound: Embodied Cognition in West African and African-American Musics. There’s a real cerebral element to Iyer, who speaks carefully and at length but not without laughter, that anchors much of the free-form associated with jazz’s improvisational nature. Iyer also attributes much of this to a 25-year-long obsession with dramatic, oblique melodies of Thelonious Monk. Last year, Historicity by the Vijay Iyer Trio was nominated for a Grammy; it included a cover of M.I.A.’s “Galang.” Iyer has also worked with a slew of rappers as a composer and writer, including a recent collaboration with post-postcolonial weirdo rappers Das Racist. A first generation curio of sorts, the unique position Iyer’s found himself in has meant courting a mix of ambivalence, naive curiosity, and ferocious pride, from a varied audience from labels to critics, long-time jazz fans to inquisitive South Asians. Of course this means Ethnic Aisle had to real talk with him about what the hell it’s like to be a brown jazz musician ahead of his Toronto Jazz Fest performance Tuesday, June 28, at the Glenn Gould Studio. – Anupa Mistry

In everything written about you, the phrase “Indian-Americans” always shows up, but I’ve also read you saying that the racial paradigm is frustrating, so does that phrase ever get annoying?

Well, it’s in my bio because either people look at my name and get it or, more commonly, they look at my name and have no fucking idea what it is, you know? So that’s to kind of diffuse that tension in the first or second sentence. But also, I’m not ashamed of it: it’s made me who I am. It sets up the dynamic of difference at the beginning, but really, that dynamic is there before I even show up, say anything, or play anything so I may as well claim it.

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